The FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force has arrested a Kirkland man on charges of possessing ricin, which court documents call "the second-most-deadly toxin known to man."
Robert M. Alberg, 37, is being held pending a hearing Thursday in U.S. District Court. He is described in charging documents as having autism, a mental disorder marked by a profound impairment in social interactions. It can include strange or abnormally intense preoccupations.
Federal criminal justice sources said yesterday that they do not believe Alberg had political motivations for having the ricin and that he had no plans to use it.
But the complaint filed by FBI Special Agent James Keesling makes clear the deadly potential of the ricin found in Alberg's home. Ricin "is typically fatal when ingested, and small amounts can kill numerous people," Keesling wrote in the complaint. "Ricin has no known antidote and is virtually impossible to trace as a cause of death."
The substance was used as an assassination tool by Eastern Bloc intelligence services during the Cold War.
Alberg's father, Tom, is well known in Seattle's technology community. He is the managing director of Madrona Venture Group, one of the best-known venture capital firms in the Pacific Northwest. An early investor in Amazon.com, Alberg continues to sit on the board of the Seattle online retailer. A former lawyer with the Perkins Coie firm, Alberg served as executive vice president of McCaw Cellular and president of LIN Broadcasting.
Tom Alberg issued a statement yesterday saying "the family is cooperating fully with authorities." It goes on to say that "we understand the seriousness of the issues involved. We also appreciate authorities' sensitivity to Robert's obvious medical and psychological conditions.
"Our family has loved and sought to care for Robert as he has waged a lifelong struggle with those conditions. Throughout that time, we have worked with medical professionals to have him treated, to the degree he has allowed us to do so. He lives independently in an apartment next door to a family member. Over the past year his condition has changed, increasing his isolation."
Robert Alberg's Web site depicts a desperately lonely man longing for a wife. A self-described singer/songwriter, Alberg titled one of his songs "I Been Single All My Life."
The criminal investigation of Alberg began in November when an employee of the Sheffield Seed Co. in Locke, N.Y., warned the FBI in New York that Alberg had ordered 5 pounds of castor seeds. The seeds are the key ingredient in making ricin.
Because the company considered the order very unusual, it alerted the FBI. In December, the seeds were mailed to Alberg.
Last month, Keesling spoke with a member of his family who has been providing a "mother-in-law" apartment to Alberg in a detached garage. The family member said Alberg had been buying various chemicals for months and had them sent to his apartment by mail.
Among the items bought by Alberg was potato dextrose agar, used as a microbial culture medium for growing bacteria or fungi.
Keesling also spoke with Tom Alberg last month, who told the agent that he was concerned about e-mail his son had sent, according to the complaint. Among the e-mails was one that read: "It's now exciting working with poisons perhaps I'll find a way to end all life on Earth through some interesting items. ..."
Another one read: "I now grow my own bacteria called bacillus anthrasis and anthrax a bioweapon comes from bacillus anthrasis. I have attached a picture of the colonies of bacteria that I grew on sheep blood agar earlier this year. I now work on making bioweapons since I am still single. I hope I die on Federal Death Row some day that would be so nice."
In August, he wrote: "I now have found a way to poison the water supplies as I continue my poison testing."
Task force agents, FBI hazardous-material experts, firefighters and the Environmental Protection Agency personnel arrived at Alberg's door early Friday morning with a search warrant. Court documents said he told them, "Oh, is this about the ricin?"
A biological expert with the team reported finding about 5 pounds of what appeared to be castor seeds along with "equipment commonly described in 'underground' ricin-production protocols." The seeds could be turned into enough ricin to kill 200 people, according to a federal criminal justice source.
Also found were clear jars with black lids containing material that is consistent with processed castor seeds.
The jars were labeled "caution ricin poison."
[Note: Alberg's name was misspelled in several instances in the original version of this article.]
P-I reporter Paul Shukovsky can be reached at 206-448-8072 or firstname.lastname@example.org P-I reporter John Cook contributed to this report.